Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, often called his conscious farewell to the world (despite the fact that he started his Tenth shortly afterwards) and perhaps his most profound achievement, is one of the pieces the Vienna Philharmonic was made for. They gave the posthumous premiere in 1912, and Mahler has been in their blood more or less ever since. Ádám Fischer led the orchestra in a bold, brave, tormented and totally committed rendering of music which Herbert von Karajan described as “coming from eternity”.

Ádám Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic © Mark Allan | Barbican
Ádám Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Mahler wrote the symphony after being diagnosed with the fatal heart condition that would kill him, and a fully alive, enraged yet gradually consoled farewell to nature and the living world permeates the work. Under the baton of Fischer, the Vienna Philharmonic moved through each of the movements with a gravity that never felt ponderous, and many dashes of fever-pitch intensity. Especially in the slow unfolding and eventual derangement-to-reconciliation of the first movement’s journey, Fischer’s allowance for wild changes in mood might seem unrestrained to some listeners. It felt right, however, the only honest way to reflect the piece’s terrifying revelations of death’s inevitability.

The dance-led second movement, opening with a Ländler before transitioning to a terrified, wild Scherzo, moved the mood ever closer to disaster, only for Fischer’s hand to somehow pull it back. As the mood turned bitter and crueller, he seemed to delight in it and the orchestra followed. The Rondo-Burlesque third movement went even further in its commitment to the grotesque side of Mahler’s vision of life meeting death and death-in-life.

Ádám Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic © Mark Allan | Barbican
Ádám Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Trumpet, strings and horns flew by, although the deliberate chaos was so in control throughout the movement that it was still just about possible to keep on top of ideas piling upon one another, each kicking or brushing away the last. When the shrieking cackles dissolved suddenly into a calm, celestial reassurance, it was the greatest shock of evening. The performers conjured this mood seemingly out of nowhere; it was very like suddenly descending into a pool of fresh water, before Fischer’s controlled wrench produced a violent, dissonant extravaganza. To extend the watery metaphor, the orchestra somehow managed to bring things back to that level, as the slowly rippling anxieties dissipated into the final movement’s expanse of meditation.

The mathematics of this interpretation of the Ninth seemed only to truly click, slowly, piece-by-piece, in this last movement. Fischer led the orchestra through what felt like eons after eons of space and time. The bottomless harmonies and the main melody unrolled and then unravelled into variations, with the pace of this alien, circular journey perfectly, inevitably correct. In this movement bassoon, violin, horn, harp and especially cello each have major contributions to make as individual voices in the gradual, swelling tide of Mahler’s great understanding. The solos were universally delicate and sure – small, relatable human voices punctuating a stare into eternity. The sounds had faded away and a long silence echoed, which Fischer for as long as possible. Then the applause inevitably broke, but one can’t help feeling Fischer would have hoped to have us all just leave quietly – it seemed the only appropriate thing.

*****